INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
As much as I like the city of Dalat, it’s the surrounding landscape that most appeals to me whenever I make the journey up to this part of the Central Highlands: purple mountains cloaked in pine forests stretching into the misty distance, the smell of wood smoke and coffee blossom scenting the cool air, and the stillness and silence of an alpine landscape that most people wouldn’t normally associate with tropical Vietnam. For me, by far the most rewarding way to experience this region is by camping in the pine forests north of Dalat.
GUIDE: CAMPING IN DALAT’S FORESTS
Why Camp in Dalat? The first time I came to Dalat, in 2005, I remember my excitement building on the bus journey as the road climbed higher through jungle and mountains, only to be disappointed on arrival, when I realized that very little of this landscape is visible from the city itself. What was the point, I wondered, in travelling all the way up into the mountains if, once you arrived, there was no sensation of being there? Of course, most visitors to Dalat go on excursions to waterfalls, lakes and valleys within easy reach of the city. However, because Dalat is such a popular destination for domestic and foreign tourists, these nearby scenic sites are often (but not always) heavily commercialized, busy and underwhelming. To really immerse yourself in the natural setting of this area, rent some wheels, ride a short way out of the city, find a spot in the forests, and camp.
Camping in the Pine Forests north of Dalat
View in a LARGER MAP
Where to Camp? Rent a motorbike or bicycle from your guesthouse or hotel in Dalat and ride northwest out of town on the Pine Tree Road. After 35km this leads to Hồ Suối Vàng (Golden Spring Lake), a popular picnic spot for domestic tourists. Scenic enough but blighted by appalling trash left by picnickers, continue on the Pine Tree Road past the lake, heading due north. The road immediately starts to climb into dense pine forests and continues to meander through them for at least fifteen kilometres, skirting the boundaries of Bidoup Nui Ba National Park. Look out for dirt tracks leading off the main road and into the forest. Take any one of these tracks and follow it until you find a good campsite under the canopy of pines.
Take the Pine Tree Road north from Dalat and into the endless pine forests to find a campsite
What is a Good Campsite? The pine forests here are great for camping: the carpet of fallen pine needles is soft to sit and lie on, the pine trees offer shade from the sunshine during the day and shelter from the cold, wind and rain during the night, and there’s plenty of dead wood lying around for making a small fire (although obviously you need to be very careful, especially in the dry season, as pine is very flammable). Personally, I like to camp on the ridge just north of Ho Suoi Vang (which I’ve come to refer to as The North Face, in honor of the brand of my tent), but there are plenty of other good spots too.
Choose your position carefully. A good campsite in this area is one with easy access to the main road (in case you need to make a quick exit because of bad weather or any other unforeseen circumstance), but preferably not in sight of it. This is because you don’t want to attract the curiosity of any passersby (of which there are very few anyway). In general, try not to draw attention to yourself: wild camping is still quite unusual in Vietnam, so anyone who sees a foreign traveller setting up their tent in the middle of the woods will naturally be curious, or even, in some cases, suspicious. Try to make sure no one sees you riding into the forests from the main road, and make sure you choose a campsite that is both in a commanding position – where you can view your immediate surrounds – but also relatively hidden from view. Remember that, at this altitude (over 1,500m), the nights can be surprisingly cold. Don’t pitch your tent in a position exposed to the wind, but also bear in mind that, if it rains during the night, you don’t want to be at the bottom of a slope where all the runoff rainwater will flood your campsite.
What Equipment Do I Need? Make sure you come prepared because, once you leave Dalat, there are very few shops in the area. This is ‘wild camping’ so you’ll need your own tent. There are a few decent camping stores in Saigon, such as Fanfan, but you should also be able to find a tent for sale or to rent in Dalat if you try hard, but the cheaper tents are very unlikely to be waterproof (however, this shouldn’t be an issue during the dry season: December to March). You could start by asking at your hotel or perhaps enquire about it at Phat Tire Ventures. You’ll need a small camp stove or something to cook on over the fire, lots of bottled water (5 litre bottles are available in general stores in Dalat for 25,000vnd [$1]), some food supplies such as instant noodles, coffee, fruit, chocolate (nuts are a good camping snack), a torch (flashlight), warm clothing and a sleeping bag or thick blanket – remember it gets cold in this area at night, no matter how warm it feels during the daytime. Having something to sleep on is also a good idea: the ground can be cold, hard and uneven, so having something soft and insulating between you and it makes the difference between a comfortable night and a sleepless one.
Most importantly, bring something to put your rubbish in. Sadly, many domestic travellers neglect to do this: set an example by making sure you leave your campsite as you found it. For peace of mind, it’s good to have a lock for your motorbike or bicycle so that you can secure the wheels and leave it near your tent during the night. Lastly, bring a bottle of the local mountain brew to keep you warm and jolly under the night sky. Rice wine (rượu in Vietnamese) is very popular in the highlands. In particular, I like the flowery, fruity, strong flavour of rose myrtle rice wine – ask around or look out for signs by the roadside saying rượu sim.
When is the Best Time to Camp? The best time of year to camp in this area is the height of the dry season, from December to March. During this time the weather is perfect for camping: dry, warm (but not too hot), sunny and bright. However, the nights can get very cold (single digits Celsius on some occasions) and the early mornings are misty and damp. During the summer months (June to September) rains can spoil the fun, although nighttime temperatures are warmer.
Is it Safe? I’ve camped in the pine forests north of Dalat many times over the years and I’ve never had a bad experience. On one occasion, my friend and I were forced to abandon our campsite in the early evening, because it had rained steadily for 5 hours and we’d carelessly pitched our tents at the foot of a hill, so that the rains ran down and flooded them. I was once disturbed (and terrified) during the night when I heard heavy footsteps approaching my tent and saw two giant shadows moving outside, only to discover that they were a couple of beautiful buffalo. I’ve never had a problem with local authorities: one time, a forestry worker walked by my campsite, I asked his permission to camp, and he said it was fine as long as I did so responsibly. When you go to sleep, make sure you have all your most valuable possessions with you inside the tent, and don’t leave food out during the night. In general, if you come prepared and use your common sense, you should be fine. If for some reason you need to bail out in the middle of the night, Dalat is only a 45 minute ride away by motorbike.
Is it Fun? Whether camping alone or with friends, chances are this will be a night you’ll remember. I like to find my campsite around mid-morning so that I can pitch my tent, collect fire wood and organize my things. Then I spend the day in the dappled sunlight under the giant pine trees, watching the colours change over the mountains, reading, snacking, chatting, playing the ukulele and singing until sunset. I make a fire at dusk as the sun is disappearing behind the ridges to the west. When darkness falls it’s always a surprise to find that mine is not the only fire in these forests: half a dozen other flickering orange lights appear in the landscape around me – a reminder that some people in the Central Highlands (mostly ethnic minorities) still live semi-nomadic lives.
When the night gets cold I lie by the fire, watching the stars and thinking about the animals that once inhabited these forests: travel writers in the 1950s wrote about wild tigers and elephants being a daily concern for locals, who avoided walking from house to house in Dalat at night for fear of an animal attack. Today, however, the only large wildlife you’re likely to encounter are buffalo, which can still be a pretty scary sight in the middle of the night. The thing that stays with me the most from my camping trips in Dalat is the sound of the wind through the pine trees at night – a sound that is at once haunting and comforting – and the good times I’ve spent camping here with my friends, staring up at the stars and drinking rice wine together.
Selected Resources for Travellers & Expats: What's this?